by Stephen Yellin
This is part of a series of daily articles that covers the run-up to the catastrophe of World War I in July 1914. The diplomatic crisis exactly 100 years ago was sparked by the murder of the main force for peace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Archduke Franz Ferdinand, together with his wife Sophie – by a Serbian terrorist. Backed by Germany’s offering of unconditional support in using force to retaliate against Serbia – the infamous “blank check” – the Viennese authorities began preparing a list of demands for the Serbian government to accept or face war. The demands were deliberately made to ensure war would occur.
The ultimatum was finally issued on July 23, 1914, over 3 weeks after the Archduke’s murder. The 12 days that followed are the focus of this series.
Feel free to refer to my list of important figures in keeping track of who's who.
Thursday, July 23rd - the fuse is lit
Friday, July 24th - "c'est la guerre europeene"
Saturday, July 25th - "we stand upon the edge of war"
Sunday, July 26th - “War is thought imminent. Wildest enthusiasm prevails.”
Monday, July 27th – “You’ve cooked this broth and now you’re going to eat it.”
Tuesday, July 28 – “To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war”
Wednesday, July 29th – “I will not be responsible for a monstrous slaughter!”
Thursday, July 30 - "The responsibility of Peace or War"
The night of the 29th had left several of the major leaders of the “Great Powers” still clinging to the possibility that a European-wide war could be prevented: whether contained to the Austro-Serbian front, deterred by mediation, or halted by autocrats nervous about the fate of their empires and dynasties. July 30th would see these hopes, the last chance to avoid a war pitting the Great Powers in teams against each other, dashed for good. Meanwhile the epicenter of events shifted away from whence it began: from Vienna to London and from Belgrade to Brussels. The next 5 days would determine the size and shape of the catastrophe to come.
Willy/Nicky, Part 3: or, Truth and Consequences
Wednesday night had seen Tsar Nicholas II, in an unusual display of force of will, force his government to cancel the order to mobilize the Russian army just minutes before the order was to be sent. Nicholas had done this on a basis of a telegram from his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II in which “Willy” had reiterated his willingness to restrain his Austrian ally if “Nicky” could avoid mobilizing his own armies. What “Nicky” did not know was that “Willy” had been replying to the Tsar’s telegram the day before (Part 1 of the back-and-forth), not his proposal to have the dispute settled at The Hague’s arbitration court (Part 2). The other fact “Nicky” did not know was that the mediation offer proposed “Willy” had already been rejected by not only Vienna, but the Kaiser’s own government. The crisis was too far gone to be retrieved by either autocrat’s say-so.
Thank you heartily for your quick answer. Am sending Tatischev [his aide] this evening with instructions [ie to Berlin]. The military measures which have now come into force were decided five days ago for reasons of defense on account of Austria's preparations. I hope from all my heart that these measures won't in any way interfere with your part as mediator which I greatly value. We need your strong pressure on Austria to come to an understanding with us.In a crisis where outright lies along with mere acts of deliberate deceit and misinformation had helped determine the course of events, Nicholas makes the fateful blunder of telling Wilhelm the truth. By telling the Kaiser that the Russian government had begun its “military measures” back on July 24th – measures that fell just short of mobilizing the Russian army – he gives the Kaiser the impression that his cousin had been secretly gearing up for war while pretending to seek a diplomatic solution.
The Kaiser’s response upon reading the telegram the morning of July 30th is to explode in indignant fury at what he saw as a personal betrayal of his mediation efforts.
I regard my mediation as mistaken, since, without waiting for it to take effect, the Tsar has, without a hint to me, been mobilizing behind my back. That means I have got to mobilize as well!
Moltke has less success with Bethmann that day; instead of consenting to pre-mobilization, he and the Kaiser jointly pen another telegram to the Tsar (although only “Willy” puts his name to it). In it they respond to Nicholas’ second telegram (“Part 2”) regarding the testy exchange between Russian Foreign Minister Sazanov and the German ambassador, Count Pourtales, then go on to deliver a final warning.
Best thanks for telegram. It is quite out of the question that my ambassadors language could have been in contradiction with the tenor of my telegram. Count Pourtalès was instructed to draw the attention of your government to the danger & grave consequences involved by a mobilisation; I said the same in my telegram to you. Austria has only mobilised against Servia & only a part of her army. If, as it is now the case, according to the communication by you & your Government [ie the Tsar’s 3rd telegram], Russia mobilises against Austria, my rôle as mediator you kindly intrusted me with, & which I accepted at you[r] express prayer, will be endangered if not ruined. The whole weight of the decision lies solely on you[r] shoulders now, who have to bear the responsibility for Peace or War.
St. Petersburg - “I will decide”
While “Willy” and his Chancellor collaborate to put the onus for “Peace or War” on the head of “Nicky”, the Tsar finds himself in a most unusual position for an autocrat: standing alone against the opposition of every single one of his ministers, his military leaders and even the head of the Duma (the Russian parliament). The Tsar had incurred their wrath by canceling the order for mobilization just before it was to be sent the night before; now, he finds himself trying to hold firm against unheard-of pressure to avoid being “responsible for such a monstrous slaughter”, as he’d exclaimed the night before.
Before he can hang up, however, Sukhomlinov asks if Nicholas will at least listen to Foreign Minister Sazanov. Nicholas consents after a “lengthy silence,” then pencils in Sazanov for a 3:00 PM meeting. Realizing that debating military logistics with his master is a waste of time, Sazanov chooses to focus on the threat to Russia posed by Germany in general. He plays up Vienna’s refusal to back down and Germany’s motivation for backing her ally up, as well as the argument that preparing for war did not mean being eager to wage it. As his deputy recorded in his diary:
It was clear to everybody [Sazanov said] that Germany had decided to bring about a collision, as otherwise she would not have rejected all the pacificatory proposals that had been made and could easily have brought her ally to reason. [It was better] to put away any fears that our warlike preparations would bring about a war, and to continue these preparations carefully rather than by reason of such fears to be taken unawares by war.Sazanov’s speech leaves the Tsar “deathly pale”, and “in a choking voice” replies: “Just think of the responsibility you are advising me to assume! Remember that it is a question of sending thousands of men to their deaths.” It was at this moment that the Tsar’s aide, General Tatischev offers his proverbial 2 cents’ worth: “Yes, it is hard to decide”. “I will decide,”Nicholas shoots back “in a rough and displeased tone”. Finally, just before 4:00 PM, he succumbs to the pressure and consents to the order for general mobilization.
There is an eerie similarity to the position held by the Tsar on July 30th with that held by John F. Kennedy at the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the vast majority of his government, as well as the U.S. military, in favor of a military strike on Cuba, JFK held firm against the pressure to commence what would have almost surely have been nuclear Armageddon. He would later cite Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece on the start of World War I, “The Guns of August” as a motivating force in compelling him to seek every last outlet for peace regardless of the demand for war. What made the difference in 1914 – what made peace turn to war – was that Nicholas Romanov lacked Kennedy’s toughness as well as the weight of history behind him to defend his decision. Russia, and the world, have and will continue to suffer for it.
Paris – “To prove…that France, like Russia, will not fire the first shot.”
The morning of July 30th sees the French army’s Chief of Staff, General Joseph Joffre receive disturbing information from French military intelligence: Germany is moving “covering forces” – soldiers, in other words – towards the French border. The report is untrue but the man affectionately known as “Papa Joffre” by his troops, on account of his amiableness and slight resemblance to Santa Claus, has no reason to doubt its accuracy. That afternoon a prominent German newspaper, the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger, reports that Germany has already mobilized its armies. While the paper is equally misinformed, it convinces Joffre that France must mobilize before Germany is ready to attack it. (The French are well aware of Germany’s plan to attack them first, although unaware of the size of the Schlieffen Plan’s flanking maneuver through Belgium.)
The French government is unaware of the fact that Russia has already given the order to mobilize, in effect “firing the first shot” between the Great Powers. This is because their ambassador in St. Petersburg, Maurice Paleologue, has deliberately kept his government in the dark at the request of the Russians. Such flagrant insubordination is nothing new to Paleologue: he has reassured St. Petersburg that France will stand by her ally repeatedly over the past week without checking with either Poincare or Viviani. It should be noted that, at least officially, the Franco-Russian alliance was only defensive in nature; if Russia attacked Germany, France was under no obligation to declare war on the latter. Paleologue, Poincare and other “hawks” in the French government wanted to change the alliance so as to pledge France to such a war, regardless of the initial aggressor. This explains the need for Paleologue to protect the Russian “secret” as long as possible, even if it means deceiving his own government.
July 30th saw the seats for members of the British public, including the Ladies’ Gallery, of the House of Commons filled to capacity in expectation of the great debate over Irish Home Rule that was to take place that afternoon. The expected vote in favor of granting Home Rule was equally expected to lead to open rebellion by the Protestant counties of Northern Ireland – a rebellion which had the sympathy of many British elites and much of the British military. An army unit sent to maintain the peace in Ulster, Northern Ireland had openly refused to go, leading to the army’s Chief of Staff, Sir John French resigning in protest of government policy. As Prime Minister Asquith’s daughter, Violet recorded:
Many of [the women in the Ladies’ Gallery] had been busily engaged in preparation for the impending civil war – attending Red Cross classes, rolling bandages and making splints and slings, etc. One Ulster matron Lady M. (whose figure was particularly well adapted for the purpose) was reputed to have smuggled rifles galore into Belfast under her petticoats.When Violet’s father rises before the House to begin the expected debate, she and many others give “a gasp of astonishment” at what he says. Out of the blue, Asquith is calling for a postponement of the Home Rule debate in light of the crisis on the European continent.
At this moment unparalleled in the experience of any one of us, [it is necessary] to present a united front and to be able to speak and act with the authority of an undivided nation.
Asquith’s problem remains with his own Liberal Party. A survey of his caucus shows that 75% of the party’s MPs (Members of Parliament, for those unfamiliar with that form of democracy) are against any intervention whatsoever, reflecting the Party’s tradition of keeping clear of European conflict. All but 4 of the 20 members of Asquith’s cabinet are equally opposed as of July 30th. Only Asquith, Grey, Winston Churchill and War Secretary Haldane are in favor. As Asquith notes in his daily letter to his mistress, Venetia Stanley, “I think the prospect [of our intervening] very black today.”
Having made commitments to support France militarily for years, including sending an Expeditionary Force and protecting the English Channel with the British navy, Grey spends the day trying to avoid making any public statements on what London intends to do. He will be forced to spill the beans on the real state of British “commitment” to the Cabinet the next day.
The sudden British hesitancy alarms the French government. As the British ambassador, Sir Francis Bertie notes in his diary that evening, the shouts in the streets of Paris could soon shift from “Vive l’Angleterre!” to “Albion Perfide!” – “perfidious (faithless) Britain”.
Tomorrow: the German war machine is activated; the French demand the British keep their word; Sir Edward Grey fesses up to his own government; and more.